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30 januari 2008 | KNAW-president Frits van Oostrom heeft in het internationaal symposium over de rol van de academies gewaarschuwd voor een naieve analyse van wat de wetenschap voor het publiek debat en beleidsontwikkeling kan bijdragen. "While our audience hopes for exclamation marks, we are often rather in the business of the question marks – and this discrepancy might easily lead to disappointments and misunderstandings." Beleidsmakers hebben bovendien "a parallel universe. Politics is tempted to use advice for selective shopping and cherry picking." Hoe hier adequaat mee om te gaan?

As a warm up to the discussions I was asked to reflect a little about the advisory role of this Academy, your host. As I indicated, KNAW has been active in this role ever since 1808, and must have brought out since then surely thousands of pieces of advice, in formats diverging from letters to hefty reports. Such advice could deal with science as such (for instance about new developments in science that KNAW wanted to highlight); or it could be about science policy, for instance about the way in our country graduate schools and research schools are organised.

And next to all this advice on science or science policy, quite a lot of our advice addressed from a scientific angle all kinds of social issues. In this last category for instance, our Academy has advised the city of Amsterdam on the quality of its milk supply, while the Noble prizewinning physicist Lorentz advised the ministry of justice on behalf of the Academy on the acoustics of prison cells.

In recent years, our advisory role has tended to become ever more active and ambitious, and has also shown a definite shift, or at least a new dimension: from policy for science to science for policy. In view of this we are presently restructuring our organization to suit these new ambitions. We are developing these, because we are convinced we have something of value to contribute here – both for society at large and for the government. The outside world sees itself confronted with as it seems an increasing amount of issues and problems that ask for scientists, the experts, to answer them – but at the same time, there are a lot of self-proclaimed experts around, and who to believe or consider especially trustworthy? Here one could expect academies to make a difference, by bringing together truly the best brains. In this respect, nowadays academies should not just function as a platform, but also as a portal to the best science.

As such they can function for both the general public and the powers that be – and in the latter respect I would like to add one other remark. A lot of pressing policy problems and issues require nowadays a great input, and a large part of their possible solutions, from especially science and technology. To mention only a few: climate issues, energy policy, global diseases, stem cell research, bioethics, water management, issues of population and food, transport and many more. Now we all know that members of parliament, civil servants and also ministers rarely have a personal background in the sciences – also in this respect our present minister is quite exceptional.

So, our representatives in government and parliament are ever more so dependent on good scientific information and advice to make an adequate judgment on all these issues – and that’s where we come in, especially since academies can be considered to give this high-quality advice from a relatively unbiased and independent viewpoint, and with an outlook on long term developments, a perspective which also seems to be more in demand, all too rare in fact, nowadays.

So there definitely is a need for good science advice via academies today and probably even more so than in previous times I think. This should encourage us to play a more active role, like our academy is presently developing. But finally, is this advice, especially if it’s unasked for, always appreciated? In principle yes, I’m sure, and we have good experiences with it. But also from experience, I could mention two serious risks at the level of, again, the general public and politics.

The general public looks for science for answers, and preferably swift and snappy ones, easy to broadcast and to digest as oneliners – while we all know that the hallmark of excellent science might well be its uncertainties. So while our audience hopes for exclamation marks, we are often rather in the business of the question marks – and this discrepancy might easily lead to disappointments and misunderstandings. Still, we shouldn’t give way to the pressure of leaping further and simplifying more than we really can account for. This means accepting and communicating that science is almost never finished or definitively settles issues, and that this is a business in which easy answers are the exception. At the end of the day, of the bicentennial in fact, academies have to guard their authority more than their power I think, and for this reason we have to stay true to our seal and to our soul, whatever the complications.

The second risk is even harder to face, I’m afraid: it’s about how scientific advice actually works out in politics. As I mentioned, politics is for a good deal concerned with issues of science, but it is also concerned with politics itself. Sometimes I even have the view that it tends to be primarily about that. This puts us in whole different arena than the pure search for convincing facts and arguments that we are familiar with, and it means that our advice will also have to function in a parallel universe where all kinds of other considerations and interests can play a heavy and even decisive role.

As a result of this, we sometimes see that politics is tempted to use advice for selective shopping and cherry picking, and only appreciates the advice that suits the pre-set aims. To put it a little provocatively, I have the general impression that our Academy’s advice is usually quoted favourably in politics, but also quite sometimes smothered in silence. In cases like that, as president of an academy one sometimes feels like a pillar saint. Now people like us should definitely not be in charge of policy, but academies should neither be confined to the role of supporting act– rather that of honest broker, even when it involves unwelcome truths. Precisely as academies, we are in the position to deliver these, since in most countries our authority and autonomy are valued and appreciated – and we can afford a long-term view on things for which other parties often don’t have the time or the temperament. I hope that we may continue to advise in his spirit. To speak with the language of the founder of this academy: noblesse oblige.

And to conclude this introduction, finally a very concrete but also quite symbolic observation about an academy’s location. Ours has been seated ever since in Amsterdam, which is of course the capital of our country but not the city of its central government. Thus our location may symbolize KNAW’s autonomy and self- sufficiency, and I feel quite comfortable with it. But looking at developments in recent years and further ahead, I would by now appreciate a pied a terre in The Hague too.

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